ETC: Investing in Baltimore’s innovative, emerging technology companies and entrepreneurs Robert Wray is the CEO and founder of Whitebox, an ecommerce automation and fulfillment service. Rob is also the founder of Innovative Technology, a technology consulting and repair business, as well as the co-founder and president of Mp3Car, an online vehicle computing resource. Citybizlist interviewed Rob as part of our conversation series with the staff and entrepreneurs operating out of Emerging Technology Centers (ETC), the city of Baltimore’s hub for technology innovation and entrepreneurship. A nonprofit 501(c)(3) venture of the Baltimore Development Corporation, ETC is split across two campuses and offers three major programs: the ETC Incubation program; Beehive Baltimore, a coworking space; and AccelerateBaltimore, a 13-week intensive providing up to six local startups with mentorship and seed funding. Since 1999, ETC has helped over 350 companies grow and achieve success. Today, about 85% of those companies are still in business, and 75% have remained in Baltimore. EDWIN WARFIELD: How did you come to where you are from starting Mp3car? ROB WRAY: Mp3car we went through a number of different incarnations [with], but I was actually getting ready to close down Mp3car and maybe go back to work on my computer repair company, my first company. We had space over at the old Emerging Technology Center, and we had inventory stacked 15 feet into the air, and we were shipping orders all over the globe. We really had no idea how much inventory we had in stock because, at the time, we were in low seven figures, and, at that level of revenue you can’t really afford inventory management systems and export compliance people and logistics people. So, there were lots of inefficiencies at the company because we were making mistakes on orders, which was impacting our brand reputation. So, what we decided to do is start Whitebox and build a bunch of automation tools. We used Mp3car as our first guinea pig for the software, and it worked really well. We ended up quadrupling our revenues. We expanded with inventory—now in five countries, and we sell in six languages, and we have less staff and more money to reinvest in our growth. Can you tell us more about how Whitebox works? What Whitebox does is we would take a manufacturer’s product and make sure it’s perfect; we put it on Amazon, put it on eBay; we handle all the customer service for it, all the returns; we build out the backend quarter of their website, their infrastructure; and we use one common database to populate all of those listings. As an entrepreneur, the way we were with Mp3car and struggling with our low seven-figure store, we can kind of take away all of the headaches that a small entrepreneur has, or even a midsize manufacturer that’s just struggling managing their ecommerce division. How do customers implement that? We actually plug into Magento, we plug into Shopify. There’s lots and lots of tools that are on the market that will help manufacturers sell online. The way that we really differentiate ourselves is that we take 100% full responsibility for the ecommerce department in a company. What that allows us to do is if there’s a problem we can loop feedback back to the manufacturer—whether that’s a production problem, a documentation problem—we can loop that feedback back through. There’s no more finger pointing, so if you’re going to license bunch of these tools, to go launch your ecommerce store, nobody wants to go negotiate a dozen contracts and find out which vendor is responsible for a problem. I think also by having a unified system we can do better profitability, we can do better analytics and improve the customer experience. How do you manage the inventory and logistics? In the ecommerce world, there’s these things called third party logistic centers, where it’s an opportunity for any customer that ships a product to outsource their logistics. So, I went and interviewed a whole bunch of third party logistic centers. Amazon seemed to be the most efficient to work with. Their barrier to entry was very, very complex because everything needed to have its own barcode, and they have very specific packing requirements, but because of my background in process automation and technology, I thought “we can manage the stuff because we’ll just build software to make sure that we comply with all of Amazon’s standards.” We license space from Amazon, and because of that, we get access to hundreds of their warehouses all over the globe. We also, for our quality control processes: that all happens over in East Baltimore right now—we’ll probably add a facility out in LA in the near future—but what happens there is it comes in via container ship there—every product has a two-page quality control document—and we inspect everything, make sure it’s perfect, and the big advantage of that is what we’re doing there is shifting our customer service costs from the end of the transaction, which makes everybody angry, up to the beginning of the transaction. Now, we have a fixed price to keep orders consistent and having happy customers helps you rise up in your search engine rankings. What are your plans for the company in the future? I think that our goal is to continue to add a lot of value by having this combined, all-in-one process and just continue to add value for our clients and help them grow. Some of our clients are seeing double digit revenue growth and profit margin growth after using our software. So, if we can continue to do that for all of our clients, we’re going to have an exciting road ahead.
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